The University of Colorado bought $47,000 in promotional merchandise from a company owned by David Barnett, a former professor who CU spent months trying to fire before paying him $290,000 in a 2015 settlement.
The university’s system office, encompassing all four campuses, recently mailed out 12,500 PopSockets-brand cellphone accessories emblazoned with CU logos to “friends of the university” as part of a $77,000 marketing campaign, CU spokesman Ken McConnellogue said.
The university was unaware of Barnett’s connection to PopSockets, McConnellogue said.
The recipients included selected donors, business and community leaders,CU Advocates and people who serve on various advisory boards.
The devices, which pop on the back of cellphones for extra grip, were invented by Barnett while he was a philosophy professor on the Boulder campus, and the promotional items were purchased from Barnett’s company PopSockets
In 2014, CU initiated a rare termination process against Barnett over allegations he retaliated against a female student who said she was sexually assaulted by a male student. The university has only fired three tenured professors in its 141-year history.
In 2015, CU ended its months-long bid to fire Barnett by reaching a $290,000 settlement agreement with him that included his resignation. The university also paid $825,000 to the graduate student victim in a 2014 settlement.
At the time of Barnett’s settlement, CU President Bruce Benson said in a statement that he felt “the best course of action was to negotiate a resolution that permanently separates (Barnett) from the University of Colorado.”
McConnellogue said he didn’t know PopSockets was Barnett’s company until a Daily Camera reporter asked about the promotional mailings.
“CU buys tens of thousands of items from various companies, and we have no way of knowing who runs them (short of Googling them, I suppose),” McConnellogue wrote in an email. “We had been looking for a direct-mail item as one strand of the marketing effort when one of the people at our marketing vendor came across a CU PopSocket at a retail location. They recommended the item to us and they were the liaison for all contact with the company. We never talked directly with PopSockets.”
Despite the connection to Barnett, McConnellogue said he imagined CU will continue doing business with PopSockets, although there are no plans to do so beyond the current promotional campaign.
“I suppose it depends on which CU entity was pursuing it,” McConnellogue wrote.
Ryan Huff, a spokesman for the Boulder campus, which had initiated the proceedings to fire Barnett, declined to comment on whether that campus would distribute PopSockets merchandise.
The CU-branded PopSockets are for sale through the website of the university-run CU Book Store,priced at $7.99 apiece.
For his part, Barnett — the company’s chairman of the board — said he was “delighted” CU recognized the value of PopSockets.
“I’m also pleased that CU is willing to make the sound business decision to purchase PopSockets, notwithstanding any ill will (that) certain of its administrators may feel towards me,” Barnett wrote in an email to the Camera. “In gratitude, I’m offering a free seminar on ethics and personal responsibility, and I’m extending an invitation to the chancellor and any other CU administrators who might benefit from guided reflection on these topics.”
All told, CU paid PopSockets $46,663.56 for 14,800 of the items, and also spent $14,263.60 for the accompanying packaging and $15,889.56 for nonprofit-rate postage, McConnellogue said, for a total of $76,816.72.
Anecdotally, McConnellogue noted that PopSockets were “quite popular.”